Olympic medal tables and “decline” narratives

In 1988, the Soviet Union and East Germany dominated the podium at the Summer Olympics, leaving the U.S. and every other country in their wake. They won a combined 234 medals, or 32 percent of all medals awarded in Seoul that summer. A little more than 3 years later, neither country existed.

Twenty years after that, China won an astonishing 51 gold medals in Beijing, 15 more than the second-place U.S., which had easily topped that category in 1996, 2000, and 2004. The surge was a perfect complement to books in vogue at that moment, including Martin’s Jacques’ hyperbolic “When China Rules the World.” Yet this year, China managed a mere 26 – not bad, and good enough for third, but behind the 27 for Great Britain and 46 for the U.S., two countries whose combined populations is only 1/3rd of China’s – and which together are often described as being in terminal geopolitical decline.

Medals and geopolitics

Olympic medal tables have indeed often been read as geopolitical commentary. For instance, the mid 20th century tables seemed to reflect the dominance of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., as expected during the Cold War – the latter in fact remains 2nd all-time in golds in the Summer Olympics, despite not having competed since 1988. Nazi Germany was the clear winner of the 1936 haul right as it was becoming an expansionist power, and Britain – perhaps owing to its long imperial history and diverse sporting culture – is the only country to have won a gold at every Olympics.

In Rio de Janeiro, the medal table was topped by the U.S. and Great Britain (Northern Ireland competes with the Republic of Ireland in the Olympics, which precludes usage of the “U.K.” as a team identifier), two countries that, as I noted earlier, have been pegged as in “decline” for decades. In Britain’s case, decline has been recognized since at least the end of WWII, gthen iven a fine point with the handover of Hong Kong in 1997, and finally turned into humiliation with the isolationist Brexit referendum. For the U.S., decline has been a constant concern, whether in the context of burgeoning Soviet strength in the 1950s and 1960s or the economic “malaise” of the 1970s and early 1980s.

Does the recent sporting dominance of these two English-speaking countries say anything about their geopolitcal  staying power? The U.S. and GBR are the first and fifth largest economies by nominal GDP, respectively, so one might expect them to at least have ample economic resources to pour into their sporting programs. But elsewhere, neither country is particularly distinguished at soccer, the only game with an international event (the World Cup) that can rival the Olympics’ prominence. They can’t even keep up with the likes of Argentina and the Netherlands there, both much smaller countries and economies.

It’s possible that the U.S. and GBR in 2016 could be like the U.S.S.R. and East Germany in 1988, with their exploits on the medal table largely independent of their “declining” status as great powers. Alternatively, perhaps their success hints at underrated strengths.

Decline or not?

The long-term narrative of “globalization” is often cited to explain both the decline of the British Empire’s once massive reach and the short-by-comparision postwar geopolitical dominance of the U.S. But as the anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu has noted, globalization is not so much homogenization as it is proliferation of the power of a handful of already-powerful nations, especially in terms of their financial clout. In 2016, New York City and London remain as dominant as ever as financial centers, having been strengthened by decades of deregulation, policies favorable to capital mobility (but cruically not to the same for labor), and the spread of high-speed IP networking (e.g., the Internet).

Meanwhile, scholars such as Michael Beckley have made the contrarian argument that in areas such as military capabilities, the gap between the U.S. and everyone else is actually getting wider, not narrower, and that the perceived transfer of power to the developing world because of offshored manufacturing is mostly an illusion. That is, many of the goods produced in China and Southeast Asia are overseen by foreign firms, which specify the designs in question.

The issue with assessing any decline narrative, whether informed by Olympic medal table reading or not, is that it is has often been difficult to figure out just how far declined (or not) a country is. The Soviet collapse of 1991 was wholly unexpected, even by the CIA. Japan’s 60-year transformation from a WWI Ally to a WWII Axis to a “Westernized” industrial power could have been scarcely imagined in 1910.

Maybe the U.S. and GBR really are on the verge of late capitalist collapse, in a twist of the crumbling planned economies looming over the Eastern Bloc amid the glories of those Seoul Olympics. Or perhaps they’re like their same old selves from 1908, before any of the turmoil of the 20th century, when they finished 1-2 with a combined 193 medals at London.


%d bloggers like this: